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Apr 05, 2018 | The Rev. Gayle Fisher-Stewart

Multi-cultural or Multi-racial?

Multi-cultural, multi-racial, interracial, culturally diverse?  These and other terms have been used in the attempt to describe congregations that have more than one race.  Yet, a congregation can be multi-racial and not multi-cultural; the faces are different; however, worship can be seen as requiring the worshiper to leave his or her background or customs at the door.   As we strive to evangelize, to bring others to Christ, and in truth, into our congregations, it is crucial that our liturgies actually reflect “the work of the people.”

It was Good Friday and as I walked into the Narthex, I smelled the sweet aroma of Copal incense from Ethiopia burning in preparation for the service.  It was the first time I had participated in the “Liturgy of the Burial of the Icon” (Liturgia para el Enterramiento Del Icono) and was not quite sure of what to expect.  As I entered the sanctuary of St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church in Washington, DC, -- a multi-racial congregation -- the icon of Jesus Christ had been placed on the table, reminiscent of a body waiting preparation for the funeral.  I took my place in one of the seats placed in a circle around the labyrinth on the floor; the pews had long been removed.  In the center was another table with the cross behind it.  Soft cello music was playing.  Anglos, African Americans, Africans, and Latinos were filing in, also finding their seats.  

As the service began, the icon of Jesus' body, having been taken down from the cross and given to Joseph of Arimathea, is borne into the sanctuary by four members of the congregation and placed in the center: ". . . the journey to Resurrection begins. We recognize the pain and the suffering marked in Jesus’s own body. We hear the Holy Scriptures and pray for all Creation, all peoples and societies, all religions, and recognize that in the solitude of this Vigil, God weeps with us, over such injustice. The crime – of the death of an innocent – echoes through the centuries, and is still happening in our own day. The cry of God is not stuck in the past but is ongoing whenever our brothers and sisters are killed unjustly" (https://spark.adobe.com/page/NRdsRMF2LeYFu/?w=0_4812). 

There are prayers, recitations, music, and the reading of the Gospel of John. The readings, the music, the lighting, all engaged the entire body, all of the senses were used to experience worship.  The music spanned European anthems, black spirituals, and Latino hymns.  The readings and prayers were spoken in English and Spanish.  A singing bowl announced and ended the periods of meditation.  

According to the senior priest, the Rev. Sam Dessordi Leite, “The liturgy of the Burial is very touching, and visceral. I love the fact that it challenges our bodies. It makes us walk, stand, kneel, prostrate, and touch different textures. And the smells of incense, fresh bread, all the bodily senses are in use for acknowledging God’s presence and pain.” 

Then each person is given a tulip and the icon is borne to the place that will serve as the tomb. We gathered at the tomb (the table on the altar) and "buried" the icon with the flowers. We approach and touch, look at the icon one last time. Then we prostrate ourselves three times and leave the sanctuary in quiet, collecting our hot cross buns as we leave. 

While the service lifts up Latino traditions, I could also see touches of the African tradition of the burial rite.  It was a service that no matter your tradition or culture, you "saw, felt, or heard” yourself. It was truly "multi-cultural" in that no one who attended would feel left out. It was Episcopalian—the framework of the Eucharist was there—however, onto that frame, liturgy (the work of the people) was enfleshed.  The procession to the altar of repose (the tomb) evoked visions of  New Orleans funeral procession and everyone laid the tulip upon the icon, gathering around the body and tomb as a final act of respect, saying good-by and also physically participating in the burial as those who prepared and buried the body of Christ.

What a radical welcome for a first-time visitor to experience worship that lifts up the familiar – a smell, a song,  a prayer, a custom.  Anyone who attends an Episcopal service should be able to “see” themselves.  They should not have to leave who they at the door; they should not have to assimilate to worship.  The preface to the 1789 Book of Common Prayer reads, “It is a most invaluable part of that blessed ‘liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free,’ that in his worship different forms and usages may without offence be allowed, provided the substance of the Faith be kept entire. . . “  

The Book of Common Prayer permits flexibility in worship and that flexibility will permit us to be both multi-racial and multi-cultural, and above all else, welcoming. What a way to evangelize!

Fisher-Stewart is assistant rector at Calvary Episcopal Church, Washington, D. C.

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